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Jeff Beresford-Howe

Memoirs of the 2007 Middle Eastern
  International Film Festival

Friday - Saturday, 10/12/07-10/14/07

Four months from, "Hey, we should have a film festival" to walking the red carpet. Four months from "Well, if we do this, who would run it, and why, and what will we show?" to a sophisticated organization with a full slate of films and over a hundred employees from the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East and a truckload of volunteers.

That's what the organizers of the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. were trying to pull off this October, the fourteenth to the nineteenth, and they were trying to do it in a place with virtually no entertainment industry infrastructure and in the middle of "festival season," when Venice, Toronto, London, et al. were sucking the oxygen out of the festival room.

Part of the small miracle of getting MEIFF together is insuring that people notice, towards which end the festival organizers invited Film Threat's own Chris Gore. By the time MEIFF had everything together, though, Chris's time was spoken for, and he asked me – a friend and former journalist with a hole in my schedule almost precisely conforming to the festival dates – to attend and write about it, and I said yes.

I wasn't alone. The festival flew in dozens of people from California, a raft of financiers, filmmakers, journalists and such, many of them like me scrambling to book their trip at the very last minute.

Here's a travel tip: if you ever want to see the full range of "Homeland Security" tricks and treats, book a same-day, international flight to an Arab country and have your ticket paid for by a third party with a Middle Eastern address. You'll get it all, starting with a "Battlestar Galactica" prop reject that shoots puffs of air all over you, a painstaking inventory of your suitcase, complete with an explosives swab on every item, and a careful going over of your electronics devices, even the ones you forgot to charge before you went to the airport.

From the west coast, the "first day" is travel, and it's really three days. The red-eye to the east coast is five-and-a-half hours, eight-and-a-half if you're flying American Airlines and you're taking the we're-three -hours-late-and-we're-not-telling-you-why-because-we-don't-give -a-shit shuttle. From JFK, it's a fourteen hour hop to Dubai on Emirates Airways.

A quick digression: flying on Emirates bears no resemblance to flying in the U.S. To start with, there are the flight attendants: they're all young, perky, conscientious, good-looking and wear cute, impressionistic veils. (Not real veils; the FAA would frown on that.) Seats in coach are as small as anywhere in the US, but the service is a revelation, as good as first class on a domestic U.S. flight. Each seat comes with its own TV and over 700 channels of entertainment, including just about every Disney movie ever made and a music collection that would make Robert Christgau jealous.

It's no wonder Emirates runs neck-and-neck with Singapore Airlines in customer satisfaction surveys, although here's another travel tip: don't sit in the first few rows of coach. Turns out that they have these baby bassinets at the front of the plane, so if you're in, say row two, what you are really in is a nursery. Counterintuitive, I know: babies don't handle fourteen-hour flights very well.

Emirates Palace, the headquarters for the festival and as lavish a film festival setting as there is.

Sunday, 10/14/07

Opening night at the festival is a blast. It's at the Emirates Palace, which is the most lavish hotel I've ever seen – it's bigger than your average American university, with marble instead of stamped concrete – and it makes even top shelf American hotels look like cheap knock-offs.

Things kick off on the red carpet, with Bollywood stars (Abu Dhabi is closer to India than New York is to San Francisco) and Middle Eastern TV personalities. (Just as lacquered and insincere as they are here! Maybe Bush is right – American values do translate to the Middle East!) There's only one American celebrity I can see – Gene Simmons of Kiss, and no, the bastard wouldn't stick out his tongue for a shot, and no, Shannon Tweed isn't here, at least not in public.

The main screening area for the festival is the Emirates Palace Theater, which is big enough for a Broadway show. (In fact, it's the site of a production of La Boheme in November.) The movie is late (events in Abu Dhabi start when the prince shows up, my seat-mate remarks dryly) after some remarks by Nashwa Al Ruwaini, the festival's Exec Director, who, strangely, introduces her speech in English by telling everyone she's wearing a dress for only the second time in her life, and then switches to Arabic for the rest. Maybe she explained about the dress thing. I don't know.

The basic theme of the festival is then introduced: we're going to spend a lot of money and show you that we're serious about becoming a player in the film industry. The first chosen vehicle to demonstrate this point is – what else? – a dance number. The festival flew in former Oscar choreographer (1996) Otis Sallid and a bunch of dancers from LA; Sallid dutifully provides a fully Oscarish, cringeworthy, goofy number. The nod to the festival's location is a framing device in which a young boy in traditional Arab dress makes his way across the stage surrounded by a Fosse-esque troupe. Jazz hands! Stilts and dwarfs! A guy dressed like a director! (The dwarf, by the way, can move.)

The opening night film is Atonement. The festival can't persuade a single cast member to show up, despite fervent hopes that Keira Knightley will make an appearance. They're all away "working on other projects," festival director Jon Fitzgerald tells us, which I guess makes them the most continuously employed movie cast in history.

The audience is a mix of Westerners and Abu Dhabians, and some of the latter are clearly unprepared for the movie: a few minutes in, after we've seen Keira's skeletal frame in nothing but a wet slip and after she gets fucked standing up against a wall, the plot turns on the repeated and emphatic use of the word "cunt." "Hot, wet cunt," to be specific. That's it for a number of Arab women in the audience, who get up and walk out.

The applause at the end of the movie – which is a lot like The English Patient, but with even more tear-jerking country-mansions-and-brave -lads-fighting-the-Nazis boilerplate, is tepid.

What doesn't get tepid applause is the Opening Night Party. It's a major hit, and one of the best kick-off parties you'll ever attend at a film festival. It's everything you could hope for: impossibly good-looking men and women dressed to the nines, a gorgeous balcony and lawn with tents overlooking the Persian Gulf, a hosted bar that doesn't close until every last straggler has wandered away, Casablanca projected against one whole wall of the Emirates Palace, and as a capper, a spectacular fireworks display as Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man is blasted over a fine sound system. It's the same music that Bob Dylan uses before he takes the stage, which is appropriate because Todd Haynes's version of Dylan, I'm Not There, is the highlight of the festival's Tuesday program.

Monday, 10/15/07

Nothing like being hung over and jet-lagged, although for some reason, the jet lag doesn't seem to be as bad as when you go to Europe or Asia. Maybe I'm crepuscular; Abu Dhabi is eleven hours ahead of California, so sunrise and sunset are about the same time, only reversed.

The hotel restaurant is a trip. I eat next to a woman in full native dress, no skin showing anywhere, even on her face. I'm too culturally sensitive to stare even though I really want to. I keep trying to peek and see how she actually gets food in there. We're both sitting at tables overlooking the hotel pool, which is filled with young girls in bikinis bellying up to the in-pool bar. You wouldn't call the woman oppressed, though: one of the more bizarre phenomena here is that wearing the traditional dress is a class signifier: very rich women are virtually the only ones I saw wearing it, and they have seductive walks, high heels, the kind of perfume that makes you swoon and some of the outfits, I discovered on a trip to one of the malls, cost as much as 100,000 durhams ($30,000 or so U.S.). "The girls can't wait to start wearing them," an Abu Dhabi schoolteacher from Tucson tells me at one of the screenings. "It means they're part of the royal family."

The highlight of the day is first thing in the morning and it's one of those moments that you couldn't put in a novel, even in a dark, comic one, because people would accuse you of losing your grip: a jet-lagged Harvey Weinstein lecturing at an Arab film festival. What could go wrong with that? It's a scene that cries out for Hunter Thompson, or at least Entourage.

A lot of people show up just to see what's going to happen and get disappointed, albeit in a good way: Weinstein is in excellent humor and gives a nice speech in which he emphasizes how important it is to be open to fresh, unheard talent. He does say one bizarre thing: at his press conference, someone asks him about Abu Dhabi's attempts to establish a film industry and how censorship might figure into that – the country is not in any sense a democracy – and he says that Abu Dhabi is more free in that context than the United States.

Weinstein is here as part of one of the most interesting parts of the festival, the Film Financing Circle, which aims mostly to get together Hollywood finance people, filmmakers and the local money people from Abu Dhabi. It's one of the things that's going to make or break this festival: if it takes off, if it seeds the Abu Dhabi film industry, and in particular if someone goes on to make a successful movie after hooking up here, it will be the signature piece for the festival.

At the very least, it's a rare chance for all these people to spend a few days together cut off from virtually everything else in the world. "I can talk with people who wouldn't give me the time of day in Hollywood," one filmmaker told me. "It's the best thing that I've run into since I started trying to raise money for my projects." There are, however, mixed reports about whether the financers are really taking advantage of it, and even a few dark whispers about whether the money is going to materialize.

This is the first day of four on which there's a full day of films, and it's a pretty good selection for a festival that's just starting out.

The first one I see is Owl and the Sparrow, a very low budget American film written and directed by Stephane Gauger, shot in and around Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), in Vietnamese with English subtitles, about the abused homeless orphan girl Thuy; a zookeeper whose favorite elephant is about to be sold into god knows what by the financially struggling zoo's owner; and a depressed flight attendant with self-esteem issues in a sleazy relationship with a pilot from her airline.

It sounds like a set-up for something unwatchably didactic, but instead what you get is one of the best small films you could hope for. One of the "characters" is Saigon itself: it's an emerging capitalist economy, where being a flight attendant is good enough to make you one of the "haves." The economic choices Thuy, the zookeeper and the flight attendant have to face are not easy, and Gauger doesn't stint on how difficult their lives are, but these are people who manage in the course of a week to find grace anyway.

Next, I'm off to The Good Night, written and directed by Jake Paltrow, a movie about a former rock star turned commercial jingle writer living with a whiny, washed-out bitch played by his sister Gwyneth (Freud much?), and with a great performance by Martin Freeman as Gary, who's on camera for virtually the whole thing. As good as he is, the real star of the movie is Penelope Cruz, who essentially has two different roles: Gary's dream girl (literally), and later a tequila-shooting model. She's hotter than I've ever seen her. The girl can work a white tuxedo. The ending's a cop out – Paltrow's deft and original take on Hollywoodish dream sequences leaves him at the end – but it's more than worth it. Simon Pegg, as Gary's best friend, turns in a comedic performance that might get him an Oscar nomination if the movie blows up.

Finally, a movie called The Last Lear dropped out of the festival at the last minute, so we're treated instead to an extra showing of the new Claude Lelouch movie, Crossed Tracks (Roman de Gare). (He produced, wrote and directed it, but contracted out craft services.) Lelouch has been making movies since Elvis and Ann Margaret roamed the earth, and it's a pleasure to see him try his hand at a murder mystery. This is the one he submitted anonymously to Cannes earlier this year, revealing himself as the director only as it was about to play for the first time. I have to say that the story sounds fishy to me: the movie has some of France's most famous actors in it. How is it possible that word didn't get out? One of the real pleasures of this movie is watching Lelouch clearly and effortlessly guide you through a complex plot that turns on itself a number of times.

Crossed Tracks has one big thing in common with Atonement: the story turns on the reliability and honesty of a writer, but unlike Atonement, which makes you feel like writers are hopeless liars, Crossing Tracks let's you see two working writers (well, one anyway) and where they're coming from. You even get a sense – and this is rare in a movie – of how a writer gets a story.

One of the festival's oddities is that every theater has a number of seats marked off as "reserved" which seem to be going permanently unfilled; I overhear one of the festival's organizers instructing an usher that patrons should be allowed to use the seats only if they give her the magic words: "I'm with the Sheik." I swear to you I'm not making this up.

Tuesday, 10/16/07

I'm walking into a charming champagne reception by – well, I have no idea who it's by, but there's one every day – when suddenly I hear someone shouting my name. This is a more than a little creepy. I don't know a soul in Abu Dhabi. Turns out to be one of the festival's publicists, Chandan Kaur, a good witch at the festival who has somehow recognized me and who has been desperately trying to call me on my cell phone to line up an interview for me with Gauger, the Owl and the Sparrow director. Of course, my cell phone is American, so it doesn't work outside the United States, even after I ask about swapping SIM cards. Shoutout to Sprint/Nextel!

I'm not prepared, but he's leaving tomorrow and it's now or never, so we have a chat anyway. Gauger is the son of an American businessman who worked in Vietnam and fell in love with and married a Vietnamese woman, and brought her home to Newport Beach. Gauger's dad passed away when Gauger was young, so he grew up closely tied to Orange County's large Vietnamese community. Now a cinematographer by trade, the Owl and the Sparrow is his first feature. He and his crew shot it in three weeks on the streets of Saigon, just two guys with camera wandering around shooting their actors on unprepared streets. It gives the film something of a French new wave feel while being utterly of its time and place.

Of course, the guerilla thing only goes so far. Gauger had to get script approval from the Vietnamese government, which I find surprising because the movie does not paint a rosy picture of life in Saigon. There's an exploitive factory owner who uses child labor and essentially sells his niece for a nice cash bonus, more than a few homeless orphan girls sleeping on cardboard down by the Mekong River and an overall sense of economic dislocation. It's not exactly Chamber-of-Commerce stuff, but Gauger says that officials were open to his script because the movie's characters at least slightly resolve these problems for themselves in the end.

Gauger also gives me an update on Pham Thi Han, the little girl who plays Thuy and steals the film. She's one of only ten girls he had time to look at for the role. "Obviously, I got very lucky," he says. "She's a natural in front of the camera, and she learned everything so quickly." She's now doing theater in Vietnam, which concerns him a bit: "It's such a different style of acting. I hope she doesn't lose what she has."

The featured movie tonight is I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' fractured take on twenty-five years or so in the life of Bob Dylan. I don't see how this is going to play in Abu Dhabi, and it doesn't. A small crowd sits there confused and apathetic, but for a Dylan freak like me, it's a miracle.

You can start with the music: Haynes mostly uses rare and previously unreleased versions of Dylan tunes by the man himself, as well as oddball covers (you have to check out Sonic Youth's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and John Doe, ex- of X, crops up with an ecstatic "Pressin' On," the highlight of Dylan's shows in his born-again years). Haynes uses six different actors, including Cate Blanchett, to play His Bobness. All the buzz – Blanchett has a shot at an Oscar because Al Gore isn't in the movie – is true. She is great playing Dylan at his most fashionable, confrontational and amphetamine-crazed. You can't take your eyes off her.

She's also the only one who makes much effort to look like Dylan. The actors weren't cast for their resemblance to Dylan, although Blanchett is a dead ringer for him and Christian Bale gets the seedy born-again Dylan afro look just right. Instead, Haynes was going for what the actors could represent about a particular time in Dylan's life. For example, Dylan spent a couple of years in the late ‘60s out of the public eye, recuperating from a motorcycle accident and doing nothing much more than writing oddball Americana tunes and raising his family. It's maybe the only period in his life that's still, and Richard Gere handles it beautifully.

All the familiar touchstones are covered – "Judas!" for example; or, the first meeting with Allan Ginsburg – but they're all at least slightly altered. It's a great idea that (1) makes the film a little more honest (every biopic changes stuff; this one has the balls to be upfront about it); and (2) makes you look at some stale stories with a fresh eye. In true Bob fashion, Haynes gleefully brutalizes some people who gave Dylan a hard time along the way: Julianne Moore obliterates Joan Baez, Saint Pete Seeger comes off like an ax-wielding psycho, and Bruce Greenwood, in a performance that will go unrewarded but which is outstanding, stands in for all the arrogant press fucks asking contemptuous questions at ‘60s-era Dylan press conferences.

Haynes has the stories of the six Dylans weave in and out of each other, unmoored from chronology and sometimes even reality, although there's a sickness and anxiety to Blanchett's Dylan and a frustrated isolation to Heath Ledger's divorcing Dylan that's as direct as you can get.

As the week has gone on, the festival is attracting a certain amount of talk among participants about whether it's going to survive. Crowds at the screenings are small, despite breathless adulation from the Abu Dhabi press and free tickets for the public, and the people that do show up are mostly American and European ex-pats. The featured movies are European or very American, albeit American versions of what's going on in the Middle East (Rendition, Redacted, I Love Hip Hop in Morocco, In the Valley of Elah). That said, there's considerable courage in the film selections, including a Holocaust movie (The Counterfeiters), a lesbian short (Her Man) and a hit Lebanese hit movie with a lesbian character (Caramel), and of course the Haynes movie, but none of it feels very indigenous or organic.

Festival volunteers Munasaleh, Marwa and Amal greet visitors at a screening of Ben X in the Palace's main theater.

Wednesday, 10/17/07

Nothing says "Middle East" to me like a Belgian movie in Flemish about a boy with Asperger's Syndrome (a form of autism) who loves video games. But fuck that: Ben X is one of the highlights of the festival.

Ben, a high school boy, is virtually non-verbal, but he has one of the sweetest home electronics set-ups you'll ever see, top of the line computers, phones and video equipment. Mostly, Ben relates heavily to a massive multi-player on-line role-playing game called ArchLord, where he's risen to Level 80, become a hero and is eloquent enough in deeds at least to have won the heart of another player, played by the Portman-ishly cute Laura Verlinden. Besides playing ArchLord, Ben (Greg Timmermans) uses the game to try and interpret what's happening to him in real life.

Ben is plainly bright, so instead of being warehoused in a special education program, he has been placed in a conventional Belgian school, where he is mercilessly bullied. There's a scene in which he's stripped of his pants in front of a class full of students, and another a few minutes later in which Ben is beaten and then forced to swallow an Ecstasy tablet, with unexpected results. Timmermans gives a skilled and brave performance, the kind that would win an Oscar if that happened to Belgian movies in Flemish. (On that subject, I'm guessing the movie has virtually no chance to make any money in the U.S., but if I've ever seen a foreign film that's absolutely perfect for an American adaptation, this is it.)

Producer Peter Bouckaert is there after the screening to answer questions, and he's plainly excited – "We kicked The Bourne Ultimatum's ass when we opened in Belgium," he crows. Not only that, but the story of the making of the movie turns out to be almost as interesting as the movie itself.

ArchLord, it turns out, is a real game, with thousands of players. After several frustrating attempts to program the game to create the character actions the director needed, the Ben X team gave up and played the game live for the movie. They had an "actor" play Ben's avatar, another play his girlfriend, and a third as an invisible character who essentially is the camera. There were still more problems, though: other ArchLord players, unaware that they were on a movie set, would wander into the scenes, so the director had to create still more characters – Level 90 – who would stand in the vicinity of the shoot and kill characters who were about to wander into shots.

The movie has become something of a cause cιlθbre in Belgium. The Belgium school system is actually pulling kids out of the classroom and into the theaters to try and educate them about bullying.

Bouckaert also notes that the movie is based on a true story. There was a real Ben X. He didn't survive the taunts and bullying, finally taking his own life.

The climax of the film-financing part of the festival is a party out in the desert, at the resortish Shangri-La Hotel, across from the enormous (capacity: 30,000) Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The plan was to give $100,000 to the nascent filmmaker who'd most impressed the financing people, but in the end, the prize was split among two filmmakers. Anand Amritraj, the improbably handsome former pro tennis player (a doubles specialist, almost as good as his brother ViJay) from India who's become an entrepreneur, film financier and producer, gets the most attention, but everywhere you turn, there are Hollywood connections. On this point, the festival plainly worked: unlike a similar party you might go to in LA, people were relaxed, friendly and unhurried and talked happily to whoever wandered into their conversations.

I barely avoid an international incident while taking a picture of the mosque; I do it while holding a beer in my hand, which I'm informed is "disrespectful" to Islam and not allowed.

Thursday, 10/18/07

While U.S. and European films dominated the festival, the organizers made room for some Bollywood and even some Middle Eastern fare, including Shadow of Silence (Dhilal Al Samt), which director Abdullah Al Muheisen, here for the screening, describes as the "first Saudi Arabian feature film ever made."

First, and definitely the strangest.

The plot goes something like this: (Spoiler Alert. Yeah, like you're ever going to see this.) a dissident, Western-oriented writer (Abdullah Muhsen Al Nemr) in an unnamed Middle Eastern country is persuaded by the promise of personal enrichment to alter his new book to the satisfaction of a manipulative regime. He's then recruited for a high level government position, but told he can take the post and its generous salary only after he's spent some time in a remote desert location known only as The Institute.

He goes there, cut off from the outside world, and begins a paranoid program of being drugged, bored (or maybe that's just the movie) and tortured by half-baked existential, bureaucratic bullshit. His wife, who's sour and unhappy in their marriage but newly pregnant, decides this "institute" doesn't sit well with her and wanders through the desert trying to find her husband. After meeting and enlisting the aid of a group of noble Bedouins, the wife and the Bedouins raid the institute and rescue the writer, at which time he and his wife (now smiling and completely covered in traditional dress) discover what they really want to be: fundamentalist Muslims in the Bedouin style.

The kicker: the institute was set up by the government to create precisely this result. It's the Saudi version of a happy ending, I guess.

Al Nemr, a fine actor, is probably the only redeeming feature in the movie: he's got a craggy, intelligent look to him that would serve him well in a better vehicle; it's kind of like Robert Loggia guest starring on Hawaii-Five O; if he can get the hell out of crap like this and find something that suits his talent, the man could have a serious career.

Maybe the weirdest part of the screening is afterwards, when Al Muheisen invites questions. What happens instead is that four guys in a row in traditional Arab dress stand up and make statements about how grateful they are that Al Muheisen has recognized that fundamentalist Islam is the only true path. It's scary, and highlights the problems Abu Dhabi might have in becoming an international film center.

On the other hand, Abu Dhabi is quite different from Saudi Arabia: women drive (even taxis), work, dress in Western fashion, and at the nightclubs (legally allowed only in hotels) they wear clothes that would make a South Beach girl blush. Christian worship, at least, is tolerated.

The Emirates are running out of oil (Dubai, another member of the United Arab Emirates, already has) and they're searching for a new purpose. The emphasis is on education, health care (unlike the U.S., simply by being a resident of Abu Dhabi, you have a great health care plan) and contacts with the international business community. In particular, the Middle East has no real media centers (outside of Israel, of course, which no one at the festival mentions), and MEIFF is part of a larger attempt to make Abu Dhabi into that center, although the emirate is playing catch-up with Qatar, headquarters to Al Jazeera.

Besides Harvey Weinstein, the heaviest hitter the festival brought in is Paul Haggis (Crash, thirtysomething), who would win the MEIFF Most Valuable Player Award if there was one. Unlike Weinstein, who jetted in and out, making as little a splash as someone like Weinstein can make, Haggis spent the week visible and available, advising young filmmakers and financiers, teaching writing workshops and showing up for mingling purposes at events like tonight's Variety party, where he affably talks to whoever walks up to him. Employing my killer self-marketing sense, I use the opportunity to talk with him about baseball, which Haggis hates, but he gets interested despite himself in my oft-repeated argument that baseball is and always has been a reflection of urban rather than rural America.

The featured shows at the festival tonight are Caramel and Redacted, as odd a pairing as you could imagine. (Deep Throat/Thelma and Louise? Annie Hall/The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?) Caramel is a Lebanese-produced chick flick directed and starring the impossibly beautiful Nadine Labaki, who is going to be a major international star one of these days. You can really see the possibilities of the festival at this screening: the Emirates Palace theater is packed for the first time since Opening Night with a festive, diverse audience that loves Caramel, which has a Western sensibility without sacrificing its sense of Lebanese place and culture and gorgeous, golden cinematography. There is some murmuring in the crowd when people catch on that one of the characters is a closeted lesbian, but the experience and the reception for the film couldn't be more positive.

From a Lebanese beauty shop and a sweet romance we move to a harrowing security checkpoint somewhere in Iraq in Brian De Palma's Redacted. The audience votes with its feet: only about a hundred people stay to watch.

De Palma's movie requires context: the U.S. press, which helped get the country into the war by sticking its head in the sand, continues to burrow fervently, ass end up. One of the ways this expresses itself is a near complete failure to depict in graphic terms the costs of the war: unlike the latter stages of Vietnam, there are no shots in the mainstream press of mangled bodies on the evening news, no napalmed girls running down the streets, no coffins being offloaded from cargo planes by the score, no firsthand accounts of village massacres.

De Palma apparently decided to remedy as much of this as possible in ninety minutes. A fictional work based on a true story revolving around the rape of a 14-year-old girl and the murder of her family, it's as hard a movie to watch as I've ever seen, unstinting and graphic. De Palma refuses to look away from any of it. It's not entirely successful – De Palma uses "video diaries" of the soldiers as a framing device and doesn't quite pull it off, the introduction feels rushed and the ending ad hoc – but it's impossible to ignore. Like most of the rest of the audience, I stayed in my seat for five minutes after it was over, devastated.

Friday, 10/19/07

I have lunch with a fellow survivor of Redacted. We meet at the Lebanese Flower and have lamb so soft and sweet that it melts in your mouth. If you're ever in Abu Dhabi, that's the ticket.

It's closing day. The only events scheduled are a closing ceremony, Haggis's In The Valley of Elah and the closing night party, and the last minute nature of the festival finally catches up with the organizers. Otis Sallid has another dance number scheduled, but it starts forty-five minutes late because of technical problems, and then a series of speeches pushes the start of Haggis's film back to about ninety minutes late, giving the film the same starting time as the closing night party. Tired, poleaxed by the movie, which is grim and slow-paced, and lured by free alcohol and the fantastic catering at the Emirates Palace that marked the whole festival, a pretty heavy percentage of the audience walks out of the movie right at the start, and they continue to trickle out for the next two hours. Haggis is pissed.

Falconer Salem Almazrouzi and writer Jeff Beresford-Howe.

The party is as good as opening night. It's held on a beautiful terrace on a temperate night with an exhausted festival staff stunned but gleeful that they'd pulled the whole thing off. The buzz is that despite some problems with focus and administration, the government of Abu Dhabi, i.e., Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Sultan Al Nahayan, is committed to the festival, and in particular considers the Film Financing Council the road to an actual film industry in Abu Dhabi. From a western perspective, if you're a filmmaker, writer or director with an idea for a movie, you'd have to be crazy not to show up at this thing next year and in succeeding years.

All that's left for me is to drink up, get in a car – with a driver; drunk driving is harshly prosecuted in Abu Dhabi – and get back to the Dubai airport.

Any trip is easier if you meet cool people along the way, and I met several.

First was Khalid, a Kurdish Muslim sitting next to me on the Emirates flight into Dubai. He prayed five times during the flight, wouldn't hold my beer when I struggled out of my little seat ("it is forbidden by my religion") and tells me all about slaughtering his own goats to make sure they're halal. (The key is, you open the jugular, but do nothing else.)

I didn't take long to toss out my preconceptions, though: Khalid is a San Diegan and a thoughtful conversationalist on his way to Jeddah (in Saudi Arabia) to check on some investments. He's an American citizen and a Democrat, not fond of his party's spine-free performance of late. Khalid also correctly predicts that our flight will be a half hour longer than I think it will be because after crossing over the Black Sea, we do a left turn at the Iraqi border in order to avoid any contact with Iraqi airspace, which would normally be directly on the way to Dubai. (Our pilots thought Iranian air space was safer. Do insurgents have surface-to-air missles? Are we less likely to be shot down by Iranians than Americans? Unsettling thoughts at 37,000 feet.)

On the way to the hotel, I met Alan Sutovsky, who turns out to be one of the most popular people at the festival because he's representing festival sponsor Mignon Chocolates (of Tehran and Los Angeles) and has a cache of them in his hotel room. He's one of those people who's naturally cool even when he's jet-lagged and has to go to three hotels to find his room. (The same thing happened to me; that's how we met.) He's traveling with his dad Joseph, who's a little grumpy at first, but hey, he's 77 and been on a plane for 24 hours, so he's entitled. After about ten minutes of griping, Joseph's mood recovers and he's a hit, especially with the ladies, who he charms with backstage stories about the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where he used to work.

Finally, on the flight home, I meet cinematographer Crofton Diack, who worked on the MEIFF documentary prizewinner, Hear and Now. She's from Portland, Oregon, it turns out, and when I mention that I have family there, she rolls her eyes like, "Geez, you hayseed, you know Portland's a big city, right?", except it turns out that my cousin David Rees, an attorney there, is one of her best friends. Even in the Middle East, it's a small world.

©2008 by Jeff Beresford-Howe

Jeff Beresford-Howe is a writer living in Oakland. Read more of his work in the Slow Trains Essays Archive.

This memoir was originally published in Film Threat.

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